Retooling Cities for the Post-COVID Era

On the checklist: public health, upskilled workers, and sustainable energy.

Reports of the death of cities have been greatly exaggerated. The Foo Fighters and Bruce Springsteen have played to full houses in New York, where young people are flocking to parks, bars, and newly discounted apartments. More than 60,000 fans packed Wembley Stadium for the Euro 2020 soccer final, and countries are reopening their nightclubs. 

While variants could force a fresh wave of lockdowns, cities are resilient. Fewer people left cities last year than were initially predicted. And just as the Spanish Flu gave way to the “Roaring 20s” and European metropolises rebounded strongly after World War II, cities’ brightest days lie ahead – if they find ways to adjust and adapt.

The pandemic has provided a playbook, thanks to the way it exposed urban weaknesses and forced people to reexamine their priorities. The cities that thrive in the future will be those that can improve public health, upskill workers, invest in sustainable energy, offer a vibrant cultural scene, and extend opportunities to all residents. 

Focus on Wellness


A disproportionate number of those who became seriously ill or died from the coronavirus had chronic illnesses and limited access to care.

As cities rebuild, there is renewed attention on improving the availability of services that encourage disease prevention and healthy lifestyles. A growing number are partnering with local corporations and nonprofits on programs that provide basic services such as access to hygiene, healthy food, and medical screenings. 

Retrain for the Future


The pandemic accelerated a shift away from the office and to smaller cities where workers could find great amenities, lower housing costs, and top ranked universities.

Cities will have to compete more for this talent and adjust to fewer visits to the office. That will change downtowns as some office space is converted for other uses, but also provides an opportunity that many are taking to add urban amenities, cultural hubs, and more options for open space for pedestrians and cyclists.

A more immediate challenge will be helping the unemployed. While job openings in many locations are at a record high, many pre-COVID positions won’t return because of automation and cost cutting. “We have half a million people unemployed in the city and 350,000 open jobs posted,” said Kathy Wylde, the longtime leader of the Partnership for New York City.  “We’ve got to figure out how to close that gap.”

Cities like Calgary have created public-private partnerships to bridge this divide gap, upskilling low earners and retraining professionals. 

Provide Convenient Mobility


Like so many other industries, the pandemic hit urban mobility providers hard as ridership plummeted while remote work and lockdowns soared.

“Our revenue dropped from €8 billion per year to €3 billion per year,” said Alain Krakovitch, CEO of Voyages SNCF, the French government-owned railway, at a recent Oliver Wyman Forum event.

In a future of hybrid work, employees will demand better options for commuting. Urban mobility networks need to be more convenient and sustainable and enable travelers to go seamlessly from a train to, say, a carpool.

Round-trip car-sharing, mass transit, and lanes for pedestrians and cyclists are all complementary to each other in an urban network, and mobility providers need to sync their technologies together to make it work smoothly. “This is a must-have if we want to offer the right services, at the right price, and in a sustainable manner,” said Aurelia Cheval, chief strategy officer of Europcar.

Focus on Sustainability


With transportation accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions, cities need to sell their residents on climate-friendly modes of transit to meet the long-term goal of carbon neutrality.

One opportunity is to partner with ride-sharing and shared mobility firms to create a holistic and efficient network of travel options.

 “When a bus or a train is running empty, that’s not sustainable at all,” said Mariano Silveyra, global vice president of public affairs at Cabify, a ride-sharing firm. “Local governments need to manage local public transportation with intelligence, innovation, and technology. There’s a lot of space to complement public transportation with private models so we can provide a seamless mobility experience to everyone.”

Another big opportunity is electrification. With car ownership rising during the pandemic, cities should look to accelerate the deployment of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, but operating public chargers remains a difficult business case. With more EVs on the road, limited commercial attractiveness for public chargers means the need for more government support.

There’s been some progress on that front. New York City recently announced its first curbside electric vehicle charging station and promises to have 100 public charging ports by October, while London reached 500 public charging points in January. Yet real sustainability and climate leadership demands greater efforts.

Read more insights from senior mobility leaders at a recent Oliver Wyman Forum event here.

Recovering With Green Streets and Retraining


For more than four decades, the Partnership for New York City has rallied business leaders in efforts to improve the city’s economic and social environment. CEO Kathy Wylde discussed the challenges and opportunities of the post-pandemic era with Oliver Wyman Forum leader John Romeo.

How big a threat to the city’s recovery is the decline in population?

Historically our population has been fueled by foreign immigration, and the Trump immigration policies strongly discouraged that. If we fix the foreign immigration problem, the remote work situation will take care of itself because the market will adjust. If New York becomes a bargain, everybody will want to live.

What does a green agenda look like for New York?

We have relied heavily on vehicles for personal use and freight. There is a growing intolerance for private vehicles today. People got used to a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly environment during COVID. Now there is a serious proposal to reallocate 25 percent of the city’s street space to community use, pedestrian use, bus lanes, and protected bike lanes by 2025. That is probably going to be the most profound response to climate change we’re going to see over the next couple of years.

What’s happening on the training front?

The Partnership is focusing on accelerating work experience as a component of education. The K-12 school system assumes you’re going to go to college, get a four-year degree, and then figure out what you’re going to do for a living. Clearly that is not working, particularly for communities of color.

Several big companies have apprenticeship programs. The OneTen organization, led by Ken Frazier and Ginni Rometty, is focusing on credentials for the black community. We’re trying to consolidate those efforts, working with the public university system and the public education system. 

Read the full interview here.